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The first major critic of philosophy in the Islamic tradition was Abu Hamid ibn Muhammad al-Ghazzali (1058-1111 CE). Ghazzali felt that no formulation of an epistemology based on human reason could possibly account reasonably for the metaphysical existence of God.

He was an influential Islamic scholar and became interested in philosophy after studying various quarreling Muslim intellectual movements. He then decided to embark on a project to determine, what is certain knowledge? And is it possible by humans? [Fakhry, p. 218, Sheikh, p. 85, Sharif, p. 583].

To accomplish his goal Ghazzali, much like Descartes, engages in a methodological doubt. Unlike Descartes, however, Ghazzali reaches a much more radical conclusion about our ability to have "certain knowledge." He begins by defining what he means by "certain knowledge." He writes:

The search after truth being the aim which I propose to myself, I ought in the first place to ascertain what are the bases of certitude. In the second place I ought to recognize that certitude is the clear and complete knowledge of things, such knowledge as leave no room for doubt, nor any possibility of error. [Sharif, p. 588]

Thus, the kind of knowledge Ghazzali is seeking is such that the object of knowledge is known in a manner which precludes all possibilities of doubt [Fakhry, p. 218].

There are only two sources of knowledge that are available to us, and those, according to Ghazzali, are sense-perception and pure reason. He writes:

We cannot hope to find truth except in matters which carry their evidence in themselves, i.e. in sense-perception and necessary principles of thought; we must, therefore first of all establish these two on a firm basis. [Sharif, p. 589]

As a first step he concludes that the only knowledge that could qualify as "certain" would be of the kind that would fit the above description, i.e. knowledge of sense-perception or self-evident or necessary truths [Ghazzali, Freedom and Fulfillment]. Next Ghazzali examines the extent of knowledge allowed via these avenues. He quickly realizes that sense-perception cannot be a source of certain knowledge since it is often not trustworthy. For example, he observes shadows appear to be stationary, whereas they move, and planets appear to be coin-sized whereas astronomical evidence points to the contrary.

Having discarded knowledge of the senses, Ghazzali now moves towards knowledge of necessary truths. He thinks that this is not a credible source of knowledge either. If he could not trust one kind of knowledge, why should he trust the other? He thought he had no reason to prefer one over the other [Fakhry, p. 219]. One of the issues that made him doubt the utility of necessary principles were questions such as, is 10 more than 3? Can something be and not be at the same time? Can something be both necessary and impossible? He thought reason alone, could not provide a satisfactory answer to these questions [Sharif, p. 589]. Hence, making an analogy between the two, Ghazzali denies knowledge of necessary proposition as well [Fakhry, p. 219]. His argument here is quite controversial, and Iqbal strongly criticizes Ghazzali on this count.

Ghazzali is now in a position where he has convinced himself, that the only two avenues of knowledge open to him are not reliable. He is confused and considers the possibility that life could be a dream. He was in a state of continuos doubt and unable to ground anything in truth and existence, he suffered from this like a real sickness. Until he realized a "light which God infused into his heart, which is the key to most species of knowledge" [Fakhry, p. 219]. This he considers similar to how the Prophet Muhammad (saw) describes it, "the dilation of the heart, whereby it becomes prone to the reception of Islam." He, therefore was able to transcend everyday experience and realize the ultimate reality via a spiritual experience.

What Ghazzali is suggesting is a "possibility of a form of apprehension higher than rational apprehension, that is, apprehension as the mystic's inspiration or the prophet's revelation" [Sharif, p. 590]. This new form of knowledge is what he calls intuition. It is distinct from knowledge by the senses or the intellect, in that in intuitive knowledge is only possible via divine facilitation.

Ghazzali and Descartes both agree that knowledge by sense-perception is unreliable, but Ghazzali makes the further claim that knowledge by pure theoretical reason alone is also unreliable. Descartes, on the other hand, had built his entire epistemology on the basis of the viability of knowledge by pure reason.

Adapted from the book: "Groundwork in Islamic Philosophy"

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